An Open Letter To Barry O’Farrell

To:          Barry O’Farrell MP
NSW Leader of the Opposition

Cc:          Nick Campbell, Mark Neeham, Scott Farlow

Dear Mr. O’Farrell,

I write to you to express my deep concern regarding the electoral implications for the NSW Coalition following recent actions by the Parliamentary wing of the Liberal Party in supporting the censorship of school league tables by the print media.

By way of context, I have been a Liberal Party member for over a decade. During that time I have served many years as a Branch President, as Vice President (Policy) of the NSW Young Liberals, and two terms as President of the Australian Liberal Students’ Federation. I have campaigned in countless federal, state, and local elections. I have dedicated years of my life in service to the party. I have done this out of my unshakable belief in the Liberal Party and our values. Like all our campaigners, I dedicated my time because I believe as a Party we are worth fighting for. That our beliefs in individual freedom, small government, and free markets are what will result in a prosperous society.

There can be no doubt whatsoever that in NSW, the Rees Labor government is a joke, and quite possibly eligible for an Australian record in the “Worst Government in History” category. For the sake of New South Wales, I want this government thrown out of office, and the Liberal Party in power.

As such it distresses me greatly that recent actions by the NSW Parliamentary team have placed what should be almost certain electoral victory in great jeopardy. By now, you cannot have failed to notice the grassroots Liberal Party membership anger generated by your recent decision to side with the radical-left Teachers Federation and the Greens, and support legislation censoring the media. You cannot have failed to notice the outrage and indignation felt by our members that you chose to oppose fundamental Liberal Principles championed by John Howard and Brendan Nelson. You cannot have failed to notice that you have gone against standing policy of the NSW Young Liberals, the Federal Young Liberals and the Australian Liberal Students Federation, and that you have placed yourself at odds with our parliamentary counterparts in every other state.

There can be no doubt that the grassroots fury directed at the parliamentary wing of the party by our members is without precedent in the last decade of the NSW Division Liberal Party. On no other occasion has our membership been so outraged as to almost publically mutiny, as they have done on this issue. Not once have they gone out publically in droves as in this instance. This anger is not driven by conservative talk radio hosts or op-ed columnists, it was nor fermented simply by John Howard and Brendan Nelson attacking your policy in recent days. Rather, it was a backlash that came out of deeply held convictions about the fundamental ideological underpinnings of our party that our members hold.

Allow me to present just a small sampling of comments by Liberal Party members in New South Wales:

“Every year around this time I have to judge whether it’s worth my while to remain a member of the NSW Liberal Party, and for that to be the case I have to believe it’s providing a viable alternative government and not attempting to flank the Rees Labor Government from the left (see: this issue, privatisation of electricity and lotteries, etc).I spent 35 days and failed 2 uni subjects attempting to get the Howard Government re-elected because he believed in something. I’m not convinced you do.”

“I won’t be donating to the party this year. and yes, they’ll be lucky if i bother to re-enroll”

“I’m a party member, and I’d almost vote for Rees. NSW liberals are a joke.”

And these are the most tame responses. Of course, I hardly need mention that your position was unanimously condemned this week by the Federal Council of the Australian Liberal Students’ Federation – the very people who constitute the bulk of the NSW Young Liberal Flying Squad.

With the greatest respect I put to you, what has been gained by taking this position? What additional political advantage have we acquired? We have gained not a single vote – there is no-one on the left for whom this would be a vote-changing issue that would make them vote Liberal. Not one. No Labor supporter would ever vote Liberal because of this. On the other hand, on our side of politics, there has been a considerable reaction, and a shift in support. What we are clearly seeing is a)a loss of support, with votes going either to Labor or minor parties, b)campaigners, who no longer believe in the State Division enough to dedicate their time to supporting it, and c)donors, who no longer will financially support a body that does not represent their interests.

I must stress, these are attacks coming from your core supporters. Your base. These are not Labor Party members attacking you, but rather the grassroots membership of the Liberal Party. And there is no-one coming out in support of your position. No-one. When you are fundamentally at odds with the entire membership of your party, you must take heed. After all, the parliamentary wing of the party is one in partnership with the organisational wing (and through it the membership). Neither one can fully achieve their potential without the support of the other, and it is imperative that we work together to ensure electoral success. We have a mutual responsibility to work with each other, and unlike the ALP, there is a reciprocal duty that both the organisational and the parliamentary wings owe to each other.

In your defence, you made the following statement:

“I am opposed to crude and simplistic ‘league tables’ that rank schools from top to bottom regardless of their differences. You can’t fairly compare and rank schools in communities as different as Brewarrina, Bankstown and Balgowlah. Crude and simplistic “league tables” stigmatise great kids and great teachers whose school some bureaucrat decides to give a low rank to. Our kids’ future is too important to tolerate them being tagged for life by a crude and simplistic ‘league table’.”

This fundamentally misses the point on two levels, and, as is forcefully pointed out by Dr. Nelson in today’s The Australian, this is utter “nonsense” (and might I note, again, how unprecedented in recent times it is for someone in Dr. Nelson’s position to come out with so much force against a state policy).

As Dr. Nelson states, “Those opposed to publishing “simplistic” league tables and insisting on comparisons with “like” communities, carry a deep, false belief that kids from poorer backgrounds will never do as well as those from more affluent electorates like mine. Nonsense. What kids bring to school with them determines where they start. What happens at school determines how far they will get. For too many it is their only chance. The key is teaching…What demeans those children and diminishes us as a nation is the belief that postcode consigns them to a life of mediocrity from which the only escape is scholarship to a city private school…

I must stress, is not only factually incorrect for you to say you can not compare students from “Brewarrina , Bankstown and Balgowlah”. It is also demeaning, patronising and insulting, as you are suggesting that students from one are doomed to lower performances by virtue of their backgrounds (this is not to even mention the tinge of racism in Mr. Piccoli’s statements during an interview with Alan Jones, which implied NESB students are expected to perform worse than their Australian born counterparts).

Having said that, there is obviously no doubt that presently, school performance does vary by the socioeconomic area in which schools are located. However, rather than trying to cover this up, this should be exposed to all the world to see! It is an utter disgrace that poorer students are destined to achieve lower outcome than their richer counterparts, and the more publically available information that exists highlighting this, the more chance for reform.

To once again quote Dr. Nelson, “Had league tables been published last year, Kevin Rudd would now be throwing billions of dollars at teacher training, accreditation, performance pay and teaching conditions in our poorest performing schools instead of the botched, borrowed largesse for buildings in many schools already burgeoning with resources.”

Similarly, if schools consistently underperform, parents will be able to ‘vote with their feet’ and send their children to better schools. This provides schools with incentives to improve, empowers parents, and is the best possible result for NSW children. Countless studies, both in Australian and abroad have proven this beyond doubt, and I would be happy to send you the research and empirical data documenting this. I must stress, it is this fundamental belief in competition and market signals delivering results that is the bedrock of what we stand for as the Liberal Party. Indeed, this is enshrined in our Federal Party Platform (pages 15-16). And it is these fundamental and core values that your position violates.

Secondly, however, there is an even more important, and more fundamental, issue at play. Even if you do not believe school league tables are beneficial, even if you think they are ‘simplistic’,  even if you think they serve no purpose, there remains no justification whatsoever from supporting media censorship and quashing freedom of speech by preventing their publication. If they truly are ‘bad’, then this should be proven publically – after full and frank debate. The dissemination of knowledge and freedom of the press is the bedrock of any democratic society, not to mention a core Liberal principle – freedom of speech is even written on our membership application! As Liberals, we are committed to transparency and freedom – and again, the parliamentary wing’s position violates this.

I certainly can understand how, in the heat of the moment, you saw an opportunity to embarrass Labor and grasped it – just as with power privatisation. On this particular instance, however, with the greatest possible respect, you have gone too far, and this is the proverbial straw that broke the camel’s back. We have alienated your core support base, and gained nothing by doing so. We have jeopardised our position with the public, with our campaigners, and with our donors. We have lost a significant amount of political capital, with no benefit at all.

Out of my love for the Liberal Party, and my desire to have you elected as the next premier of NSW, please, show true leadership, and adopt a stance more in line with Liberal Party values. The mark of good leadership is the ability to admit mistakes when they are made – believe me, I’ve certainly made enough mistakes to learn this the hard way!

In changing course, you will not show weakness, but rather strength. I – together with thousands of other Liberal Party members – beg you to do this. For the sake of not only the Liberal Party, but for New South Wales.

I look forward to your prompt response to the issues I have raised.

Yours in Liberalism,

Timothy Andrews

Update: Click here for a pdf version of this letter.

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7 Responses to “An Open Letter To Barry O’Farrell”

  1. Brian Says:

    *Stand up and applause*

  2. Josh A Says:

    We don’t see eye to on everything Tim, but you’re doing a good service to the Party and to that Children who’s future would be brighter with League Tables and School Choice.

    Hopefully our current leaders in the young leaders in the Liberals will take a strong stand as well.

  3. Bee Says:

    *standing ovation*

  4. Tim Quinn Says:

    Very well written letter Tim, great stuff.

    Incidentally, I’m in the Greens and couldn’t agree with your position on league tables more – and I’m far from alone in the party.

  5. Tim Andrews Says:

    Yes, i’ve always thought you were much too sensible for your party, Mr. Quinn! 🙂

  6. John Humphreys Says:

    That comment might be directed in multiple directions Mr Andrews… 😛

  7. My Blog: One Year On « The musings of an Australian classical liberal in Washington DC Says:

    […] An Open Letter to Barry O’Farrell […]

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